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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "Everyday Use" how and why does Dee try to "improve" her family, and how do Mama and Maggie react?

When Dee was in school, she used to read from her textbooks to Mama and Maggie. To Dee education is a means of raising one's station in life, and it is clear she thinks Mama and Maggie are living a life that needs improvement. However, her reading to them was also a way of showing off her knowledge and superior intellect, and Mama notes Dee would "shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand." At the end of the story, Dee kisses Maggie and encourages her to "make something" of herself. While Dee does seem to care about her family at least somewhat, she does not understand why they do not share her upwardly mobile values. Thus, her admonitions seem condescending and misplaced. Maggie responds with only a smile—a smile that shows her intention to be happy whether Dee approves of her life or not.

In "Everyday Use" why is it significant that Mama saves the quilts for Maggie instead of giving them to Dee?

Dee has always gotten her way in the past, but in this instance Mama stands up for Maggie and opposes Dee's wishes, "something I never had done before." Mama suddenly sees Maggie's goodness and faith and realizes she can do something good for Maggie, who deserves the quilts more than Dee does. By standing up to Dee, Mama shows Maggie neither of them needs to be under her thumb anymore. She also shows goodness is sometimes rewarded; even the meek sometimes win the day, as their religion tells them. Mama is no longer cowed by Dee's intimidating intelligence or belligerent ways. She has found the inner strength to change the way she treats her daughters.

In Walker's "Everyday Use" how does Maggie feel about Dee?

According to Mama, Dee makes Maggie nervous. Knowing how Maggie behaves, Mama expects her to "stand hopelessly in corners ... eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe" during Dee's visit. Dee has always come out on top in life, causing Maggie's envy and awe. Maggie has had no such success in life, while it seems effortless for Dee. When Dee asks for the quilts, Maggie resents her sister's request and reacts by slamming the kitchen door shut. However, she then offers the quilts to Dee without arguing. She "looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't mad at her." Maggie accepts her own lot in life, always being the one who loses, and she also accepts her sister equally as the one who always wins. She does not blame Dee for this inequity; it is just who Dee is. She does seem to fear Dee's temper, though; it is likely Maggie simply wants to keep the peace in offering Dee the quilts. She may also wish to avoid alienating Dee over mere possessions; she does seem to care for her sister, despite Dee's shortcomings, since Dee is the one who points out hers.

What do Mama's word choices and tone reveal about her character in "Everyday Use"?

Despite what Mama says about her intellect, she is an accomplished storyteller whose use of colorful language and detail establishes her individual character and voice. Her diction is colloquial and reflects her lack of education and pretense, but it is precise and incisive. In her narration it is clear she sees through pretense and affectation. When she talks about herself, she is sometimes self-critical, but when she describes her physical prowess, that is what she can do with her hands (breaking ice, butchering animals), she is as strong and competent a character physically as Dee is intellectually. When she talks about her house and Maggie, her voice is precise and honest. She sees their limitations, but she is no less fond of them. However, when Dee and Hakim-a-barber are present, her language and tone change. Mama generally has a sarcastic word or two for Hakim-a-barber, from describing his long hair as down to his navel and comparing his beard to a "kinky mule tail" and calling him "Asalamalakim." Later she derisively refers to him as "the barber." Her language in talking about Dee is sometimes similarly vivid, as she refers to her daughter's pretensions by alternating between "Dee" and "Wangero" and referring to her as "Miss Wangero" when she gains the courage to refuse to give her the quilts.

How is the theme of authenticity versus superficiality in "Everyday Use" addressed through Dee's and Maggie's intended uses for the quilts?

For Maggie quilting is a part of regular life, to be done as needed for practical reasons. Putting the quilts to "everyday use" is not only practical but also a way in which she honors and remembers the women who helped her learn the skill of quilting, in particular Grandma Dee and Dicie. Maggie is authentically connected to her ancestors through the quilts, which she uses and will use in the way they were intended. Furthermore, she will continue to create them as they have been for generations. Dee, on the other hand, wants to hang the quilts on her wall as showpieces as in a museum to impress people, a superficial motivation. Dee has already shown she does not esteem the ancestors who made the quilts. She has rejected her American lineage and even her given name, which was bestowed to honor these very women. Her interest in the quilts is trendy and artistic rather than practical and authentic.

What evidence in "Everyday Use" shows Mama may admire Dee more than Maggie?

Mama focuses on Maggie's negative, or unattractive qualities in her descriptions during most of the story, calling her "homely," and comparing her with "a lame animal." Mama says matter-of-factly, "She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by." Mama has more praise for Dee than for Maggie. Dee is bold and confident; "She would always look anyone in the eye." Mama comments Dee is "lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure," and she draws attention to her daughter's determination and style. Even Dee's feet are nearly perfect, "as if God himself had shaped them." Overall Mama seems inclined to admire Dee for her good qualities rather than dislike her for her negative ones. Although Mama notices Maggie's negative qualities first and hardly mentions her good qualities, she does have a dramatic change of heart and recognizes Maggie's kindness and generosity and the misfortunes she has always endured.

What negative qualities does Mama observe in Dee in "Everyday Use"?

Mama resents how Dee behaved when the house burned down, callously watching the flames devour the house she hated and not aiding her injured sister. Dee "used to read to us without pity," says Mama, even though neither Maggie nor she understood what Dee was reading. Mama notes Dee's "scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye," an observation implying Dee was mean spirited in her jests. Mama also points out her "faultfinding power," which scared off her one-time boyfriend Jimmy T, and the fact that "she has a temper." Finally, Mama relates Dee's hypocrisy regarding the quilts; she once turned down an offered quilt because "they were old-fashioned, out of style." It is clear Dee wants the quilts only because she thinks such artifacts are now in fashion.

What is the significance of Mama's dream about a television talk show in "Everyday Use"?

Mama opens this section of the text by describing "TV shows where the child who has 'made it' is confronted" by her old, weak parents. This statement reflects her opinion about Dee, who Mama believes has "made it" in the world, and her own role as the long-forgotten parent left behind. In her dream, however, Mama does not appear as herself on the show. She is thinner, prettier, and much wittier than in real life. In other words, she is "the way my daughter would want me to be." Mama knows in Dee's eyes she falls short of being admirable, a fact that haunts her dreams. But in life Mama knows she will not change her ways and become something she is not even though she falls short of her daughter's false expectations, as unreal as the imagined television program.

In "Everyday Life" how and why does Dee dissociate herself from her family and heritage?

Dee breaks away from her immediate family through education and by moving away from the home she hated. Embarrassed by her family's poverty, she wants nothing to do with the lifestyle Mama and Maggie live. For these reasons she purposefully dissociates herself from them to start a new life on her own in which she has more money, style, and sense of power. Dee also dissociates herself from the American side of her heritage, including her own name, a name passed down through generations. She wishes to separate herself from the oppression her American ancestors endured. Her choice, therefore, is to honor her distant roots in Africa, a place totally distant from her real life, by choosing a new African name and adopting African styles of dress, jewelry, and hair.

How does Dee's sense of style illustrate one or more themes in "Everyday Use"?

From a young age Dee has shown a great deal of concern about style and appearance. Mama notes,"At sixteen, she had a style of her own; and knew what style was." This statement relates to the theme of superficiality; Dee wants to look good and make an impression on others with her style. Furthermore, her use of style may be considered superficial because it is trendy and short-lived. Dee uses this same sense of style to dissociate herself from her family, another theme of the story. Since high school one way she has separated herself from Mama and Maggie is by the way she dresses. This behavior carries over into the present day, when she arrives wearing a brightly colored African dress and showy jewelry. Her African clothing and hairstyle touch on a third theme, heritage. Dee feels her true heritage lies in Africa, rather than in her American ancestors, and one way she demonstrates these feelings is in her style of dress and the way she presents herself to the world.

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